There are a few surefire moments of crushing heartbreak in the theater and the movies: When the nun’s dead born-out-of-wedlock son shows up at the church doors in Puccini’s “Suor Angelica.” When all the people who died of AIDS show up on the beach of Fire Island in Norman Rene’s “Longtime Companion.” (Matthew Lopez lifted the scene to end the first half of his play “The Inheritance.”) And when the Nazis show up to break down that attic door in Amsterdam in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Even as leaden an adaptation as George Steven’s 1959 film, with Millie Perkins and Richard Beymer woefully miscast as the young Jewish lovers, “Diary” always delivers at the very end.
And so does Tom Stoppard’s 2020 play, “Leopoldstadt,” which opened Sunday at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre after an Olivier Award-winning run in London. The Nazis here arrive on Kristallnacht 1938, which is the fourth act of Stoppard’s five-act play, which runs 130 minutes without intermission. The playwright introduces us to the members of this very large and extended family much earlier, in 1899, when two Jewish husband-fathers debate the future of the people of Leopoldstadt, the affluent Jewish section of Vienna, Austria.
Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz) is the skeptic, who takes refuge in the purity of math, which he teaches. Herman (David Krumholtz) is the optimist, who improves his business prospects by converting to Roman Catholicism and marrying a Gentile, Gretl (Faye Castelow, underplaying her character’s infinite vapidity). Their debates on everything from Zionism to Freud to the burgeoning arts scene in Vienna fuel Act 1 and only George Bernard Shaw, arguably, was better than Stoppard at talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. “You seem to think becoming a Catholic is like joining the Jockey Club,” Herman tells his brother-in-law, while Ludwig answers, “It’s not unlike, except that anyone can become a Catholic.” It’s not the only argument Ludwig wins, because Jews are doomed. Before the Nazis arrive, however, they get all the best lines. For example, Herman’s mother (Betsy Aidem, underplaying her character’s infinite wisdom) says of a grandson, “Poor boy, baptized and circumcised in the same week.”
Gretl isn’t the only Gentile who has had an effect on the family. There’s also Ludwig’s brother-in-law, Ernst (Aaron Neil), and thanks to this shegetz, as well as Gretel, all the children are busily decorating a Christmas tree. Again, it’s Grandma who plays the comic sage: “I don’t mind Christmas because the baby Jesus had no idea what was going on, but I feel funny about Easter eggs.”
Gentiles in “Leopoldstadt” are never so clever. Pre-dating Annie Hall by a few decades, the pretty but vacuous Gretl indulges in an extramarital affair with a ferociously anti-Semitic officer (Arty Froushan), while her shegetz counterpart in the family, Ernst, almost disappears into Richard Hudson’s gilded and gorgeous drawing room set. That vanishing act is true of many characters in Act 1, set in 1899, and Act 2, set a year later. But anyone who has seen Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love” knows how to pay close attention only to the principals to keep your head above the overpopulated waters of the plot.
That viewing technique is even more required for the very crowded Act 3, set at a bris in 1924, when most of those principals from Act 1 are now minor characters and their adult children take over the narrative without much introduction from Stoppard. One individual does dominate. He is Jacob, the little boy in Act 1 who has little success trying to put a Star of David atop the Christmas tree. Clearly, he is the rebel among all the other complacent Jews. Now, having fought in the Great War, Jacob (Seth Numrich) has returned from that conflict “hollowed out.” If only.
Krumholtz and Uranowitz succeed in making Herman and Ludwig’s debate in Act 1 absolutely riveting. Stoppard, however, has written Jacob as a one-person screed, and Numrich’s over-the-top “Give me a Tony Award nomination” performance nearly sabotages the act. No help are Jacob’s relatives of his generation whom Stoppard has conceived as Jazz Age heathens whose biggest concerns are what America will come up with next after giving them that wonderful dance called the Charleston. Patrick Marber’s direction, so nuanced in Act 1, suddenly turns blunt. But then, so does Stoppard’s writing.
Act 4 is set on Kristallnacht 1938. It’s here that the Playbill credits tell us that Nathan is the “son of Sally and Zac” and Leo is the “son of Nellie and Aaron.” However, there’s no need to look earlier in those credits to refresh your memory that Sally is the “daughter of Ernst and Wilma” and Nellie is the “daughter of Ludwig and Eva.” It’s enough to know that the family is now under siege, and they have failed utterly in their attempts to escape.
Unfortunately, Stoppard’s penchant for the Big Character reemerges in the fifth and last act, set in 1955, when Nathan (the double-cast Uranowitz) takes up Jacob’s angry young man mantle to give us a Cliffs Notes lesson on what’s wrong with the world, especially the United States. (No mention is made of the nearly 300,000 American soldiers who died fighting a war a few thousand miles away from home.) Uranowitz matches Numrich’s decibel level, and it is a toss-up who has a better claim for the Tony.
Uranowitz’s overacting does give the act’s two other characters, Leo and Rosa, the chance to emerge as something resembling human beings. All that remains of this once-large family are these three people. Leo (the double-cast Froushan) is essentially Stoppard, whose four grandparents all died in Nazi concentration camps. Leo is an Austrian-Jew transplanted to England and not terribly aware of his background – until, finally, he is forced to remember. Rosa is played by the nicely subdued Jenna Augen. (The actor also plays Ernst’s wife and I don’t recall seeing her in Act 1, but that Wilma character does reappear in Act 4 to make a great, mute impression). Rosa is the daughter of the equally low-key Ernst, and because she now works as a shrink, she knows how to let someone like Nathan vent before resolving everything with her quiet, patronizing wisdom.
Less successful dramatically is Rosa’s work to recover a portrait of Gretl that dominated the drawing room in acts three and four, but is now missing. The Nazis stole it and the liberated citizens of Austria aren’t giving it back. Stoppard touches on a major topic here, “touches on” being the operative words. A few members of the audience at the Longacre oohed and aahed when the stolen portrait of Gretl was mentioned, aware of the long legal battle over Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (aka “The Woman in Gold”), now housed at the Neue Galerie in New York City. Stoppard treats the subject as a mere afterthought. It is just one example where “Leopoldstadt” needs more time to let its drama play out effectively. Even at its present condensation, the production could use an intermission after Act 2.
Stoppard ends his play not unlike the way Rene ended “Longtime Companion” and Lopez ended the first half of “The Inheritance.” In other words, “Leopoldstadt” ultimately delivers.
Seeing Stoppard’s new play forced me to reconsider my review of a play about anti-Semitism that had its world premiere earlier this year. I gave a mixed to upbeat review to Joshua Harmon’s “Prayer for the French Republic,” about a Jewish family living in contemporary Paris who move to Israel due to the rampant anti-Semitism in France. Harmon delivers something much more adventurous in that play’s structure than Stoppard’s consecutive quick glimpses of a family’s downward spiral in “Leopoldstadt.”
The contemporary scenes in “Prayer” are interspersed with flashbacks to the family’s ancestors living in Nazi-occupied Paris. In January, I wrote that Harmon’s contemporary family read more American than French. Seeing “Leopoldstadt,” where the actors speak an British-accented English to impersonate German-speaking characters, I realized that with my criticism of “Prayer,” where the actors spoke an American-accented English to impersonate French-speaking characters, I had succumbed to Anglophilia, a disease afflicting so many New York theater critics. If Harmon had cast his play with British-sounding actors, would that have taken care of my objections? Would his family automatically appeared more “French,” in the same way that I had read Stoppard’s family as being so authentically “Austrian”? Some of us can be so agog at the British accent that we think it’s not only superior on stage but serves all purposes beautifully.
Having seen both Harmon and Stoppard’s plays about Jewish families, I’d pick “Prayer for the French Republic” as the one to see again.